It might have ended 0-0, but Valencia and Villarreal played an entertaining match today at the Mestalla in the first leg of their Copa del Rey matchup. Yet again Unai Emery opted for a defensive lineup to negate Villarreal's possession play and up-front speed, while looking to hit the Submarine on the break with Mata and Pablo in support of lone striker Aduriz. As for Villarreal, they fielded the same lineup as on Saturday against Mallorca, except that Juan Carlos replaced Diego López in goal.
Though the first half was short in specific incidents, Valencia certainly had to be the more satisfied of the two clubs at the break. Villarreal's midfield could not find Nilmar and Rossi, and were unable to create any chances at all in the first half. Rossi could have been in one-on-one in the eleventh minute, but controlled the pass with his hand; shortly before the half he was harshly, I thought, ruled offside when he would have had only the keeper to beat. That was it; no shots on goal, no real chances, and Borja Valero and Santi Cazorla, who had been so impressive on Saturday, unable to affect proceedings.
As for Valencia, Villarreal's high line in defense frustrated many opportunities, but Aduriz could have done better with a free header in the fifteenth minute. Valencia's great chance came when Juan Carlos, who up until then had done well, miskicked a goal kick straight to Mata, who set up Pablo....who missed with the goal at his mercy.
Villarreal brought on Senna for Cani (who had received a yellow card in the first half) at the break, but within a minute Valencia were close again, Mata hitting the post. In the first fifteen minutes the only two Villarreal opportunities to relieve the pressure failed when first Cazorla, then Rossi couldn't find the necessary pass to send Nilmar through. Aduriz and Pablo went out, Joaquin and Soldado came on. Mata picked up a yellow for a dive in the penalty area, Soldado fluffed a chance, and crosses either missed their target, were cut out by the Villarreal defense, or intercepted by the impressive Juan Carlos in goal. Valencia controlled play, but never looked all that likely to create sustained pressure and then a goal.
Much like the league match in El Madrigal, Valencia's defensive effort eventually waned a bit as they tired, and in the last 20 minutes Villarreal had several chances to break the deadlock. First Gonzalo headed over after Villarreal had won a corner, and in the 77th minute came the big chance. An excellent piece of control and pass from Altidore (who came on for an injured Senna) sent Nilmar in, but his first touch was a bit strong and the keeper was able to block his shot. Valencia's best chance came when Mata shot wide from the top of the area with seven minutes left. In the end the resolute Villarreal defense was able to survive three minutes of injury time.
Valencia will feel, rightly, that they played the better of the two sides, and largely accomplished the goals in their game plan, but will rue their inability to translate that dominance into even one goal. As for the Submarine, they will be concerned at the ineffectiveness in midfield and the lack of chances for Rossi and Nilmar, but will be encouraged by their defensive play, especially captain Gonzalo and the young Musacchio. In addition, coach Juan Carlos Carrido will be very pleased with the play of young keeper Juan Carlos, and the contributions of Jozy Altidore off the bench.
Villarreal felt it deserved to win the first league match between these two; Valencia will doubtless feel they should have won today. It's clear these teams are very evenly matched; Villarreal now have the home advantage, but no away goal to give them a cushion at El Madrigal. Both teams now enter their Christmas break knowing that on January 6th they meet again with all to play for.